Shaking IT Up: 10 Ways Management Can Ruin Your Day
May 10, 2004 Kevin Vandever
My last column listed 10 ways a programmer can ruin your day. Knowing the state of IT these days, I realize that, through my article, I had declared open season on programmers. I made it very easy to blame the programmers for all IT woes. Well, hunting season on programmers is over. It’s time to take aim at management. So here’s my list of the 10 ways that management can ruin your day.
Just as the application development staff can determine how smooth a company’s operations run, so can the management and leadership teams. These people manage projects, set priorities, supervise employees, negotiate with vendors, beg for their budgets, and sometimes find time to strategize and plan for growth and positive change. They do all of this in spite of all the meetings they have to attend. I know this because I write from experience. I also know that, mixed in with all this productive stuff that managers do, they also know how to ruin your day. The following are 10 ways that come to mind, in no particular order.
NO. 1: OUTSOURCING IT SERVICES
You’ve heard the rumors: millions of programmers and help desk specialists in China and India frothing at the mouth to take IT jobs from some poor, unsuspecting souls in America. Well, it might not be that dramatic, but the fact remains that managers look at ways to reduce IT costs, and one way is to outsource technical jobs to overseas companies that can do the work cheaper and just as effectively. Now, I am not here to debate the pros and cons of outsourcing–that’s fodder for another time–but I am here to say that management determines whether IT jobs will be farmed out to our neighbors in other lands, and that decision can leave someone with a less-than-desirable day, spending his time pondering what housing prices are like in China or India.
NO. 2: MICROMANAGING
Everybody hates this, right? I have never heard anyone say, “Gee, I wish I could be micromanaged more.” Talk about potential for a ruined day. The good news is that I see this less in IT than in other departments, but I still see it, and it still usually leads to a mad dash to the medicine cabinet and, in better economic times, a dash to the door. Many times, this is caused by insecure or power-hungry managers (see number 8) who think that nothing can get done unless they’re watching every detail. Little do these managers know that the more they let go, the more success their teams would have and the less stress they would endure and inflict on others. These managers would then have more time to perform more meaningful duties, like negotiating our raises. But until they learn this valuable lesson, they will continue to be consistently successful at one thing: ruining your day.
NO. 3: MACROMANAGING
You probably love this, right? No one looking over your shoulder all the time, directing your every move. On the surface, this may sound like a good thing, but as bad as micromanagement is, the opposite–call it “macromanagement”–can actually be worse, but in more subtle ways. At least with micromanagement, things are usually under control, albeit in a stressful environment. The staff may have to report their every move, but in most cases decisions are being made.
Most non-management IT types like and need some direction. They need to know what to do in a tight spot or feel comfortable that they can escalate an issue without retribution. Without management support, these folks will procrastinate and wallow in ineffectiveness. A manager who thinks it’s cool to give his department ultimate freedom, or who does so out of fear of making a decision, may be easy to work for in the short term, but eventually you will start to become ineffective and unresponsive. That’s why this problem is one of the most dangerous, along with number 5, because often the symptoms are not noticeable until it’s too late.
NO. 4: SETTING UNREALISTIC DEADLINES
This one bothers me the most. If I had a nickel for every day ruined over this issue, I’d probably be as rich as Bill Gates. Management never seems to learn. They constantly agree to a major undertaking, picking a date out of the air, and hold the rest of IT to that date as if it were the Gospel. Then you work like crazy to meet that date, adding scope, redoing work after testing, and putting in hellacious hours, with the only constant being that the date doesn’t move. All of this because a deadline was magically established with no knowledge of the effort that is necessary to accomplish the project.
And we don’t fight back anymore. We are either ignorant of the issue or we are so used to this culture that we don’t even ask them to justify the deadlines anymore. We just accept them. And forget moving the date if something slips or requirements are added. Just work harder and longer to get the project done. This mentality ruins weeks, month, years, and even careers.
NO. 5: PASSIVE-AGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR
This one is as hard to peg as macromanagement (number 3), but it lingers, and if you’re not careful it will not only ruin one day, but, like many others on the list, it will ruin a whole string of them faster than you can type www.monster.com. So what is passive-aggressive behavior? This is a culture in which, from an outsider’s point of view, everyone seems to get along. Meetings are run without conflict, managers’ decisions aren’t debated, and any problems in the department seems to be a natural part of the normal IT environment.
But on closer examination, you’ll notice that meetings are run without conflict because conflict, or appropriate debate, is not allowed. No one debates the manager because the manager is insecure or power hungry and will not be questioned. The problems in the department exist because people are afraid to question them. This is not healthy and will stunt all growth and innovative thought in an IT department.
These managers often play an adversarial role with their staff, as opposed to a cooperative one. They don’t necessarily act as tyrants (number 8) or micromanage anyone (number 2), and they may seem pleasant to work for, but underneath it all, everyone knows that their authority is not to be questioned, even when actions and decisions are inconsistent or contradictory. When this happens, and no one openly talks about it, a day-ruining cancer starts to form inside your department that will eventually lead to its downfall.
NO. 6: SHORT-SIGHTED BUDGET CONSTRAINTS
This one comes in many disguises and could probably fit under one of the other categories on this list, but this is a serious issue. I understand the need for budgets, of both dollars and time, but we often spend more money and more time by not doing something upfront.
The two budget cuts that come to mind are training and proper analysis. We often sacrifice proper analysis and testing in order to meet deadlines. You don’t have the time to do it right, but you have time to do it over or to do it forever.
This also holds true for financial budgets, especially where training is concerned. Management doesn’t want to spend to money to send people to training or to allow them to train at work, but there is money to redesign and rewrite applications because the staff may not have correctly done it the first time. I understand the budget process, and I understand that users need their software in a timely manner, but just because we save some money or get something done within the user’s expectations doesn’t necessarily mean that we have budgeted that money or time correctly. Both could come back to haunt us in the long run. Look at it as a bank of ruined days.
NO. 7: SCHEDULING TOO MANY MEETINGS
At least this phenomenon can ruin a manager’s day, too, although he may not realize it. Most meetings are a waste of time. Period. You don’t need meetings to communicate effectively. You need communication to communicate effectively. And there are plenty of other forms of communication that are more direct and come without all the baggage associated with meetings.
Meetings are usually a time for managers to posture and play political games. That posturing and those political games give birth to many other day-ruiners on this list, like unrealistic deadlines (number 4), passive-aggressive behavior (number 5), or taking credit and passing along the blame (number 10).
And those meetings that actually bring about some good often run too long. Meetings are usually scheduled for some arbitrary, but easily manageable, length of time. For example, most meetings are scheduled for an hour and, amazingly, usually last an hour. Does this happen because we are so good at knowing how much time it will take to discuss an issue? No. It happens because we figure out a way to take up the whole hour, and that is usually done by rehashing issues, slipping into company gossip, or discussing topics that aren’t related to our work–the latter might be the most productive time spent in a meeting. So if your manager is either attending or scheduling you for too many meetings, chances are there is a ruined day in your near future.
NO. 8: HOLIER-THAN-THOU ATTITUDES AND TYRANNY
Some managers think that, because they are managers, they are better and more important that the rest of the staff. What can I say about this behavior that you don’t already know? If you work for this type of manager, most days are ruined before you even walk through the door.
This issue is a close relative to number 10, as you can be sure that when your manager is in a meeting or is talking with other managers, he is either taking credit for something that his staff accomplished or blaming you for something he could have managed better. But there’s more to this behavior, and it usually comes with a condescending attitude that leads to dissention or a lack of confidence. These managers have forgotten where they came from and usually stamp the life out of a department, then blame the department for the failures. There is no hope for recovery if you work for this type of manager. The good news is that you’ll be so used to ruined days that you’ll desensitize yourself and soon it won’t matter. (That is actually very bad news.)
NO. 9: MANAGING INSTEAD OF LEADING
This is one of the more subtle ways a manager can ruin your day. You may be perfectly happy with your job and your manager, but soon things start to deteriorate. The problems arise from unhappy employees who don’t see a career path or a department direction. These managers may be great at managing people and projects, but what about leading people? What about motivating staff, painting a clear vision of the future, setting goals and working toward them? This is what leading is about, but many managers lack this skill or don’t have the time for it.
However, too much of this behavior can take its toll. This happens a lot in IT because of the Peter Principle, which states that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Skilled technical people are often promoted into management positions because that’s how they can make more money and climb the corporate ladder, not because they are great leaders. We don’t train, groom, or hire leaders who may not be technical but know how to lead a team and manage projects.
This is another one of those issues that can ruin the manager’s and the subordinate’s day, and probably will take a complete corporate culture shift before there’s an improvement. This is not to say that one can’t rise from the technical ranks and become a great leader. I’ve seen this work well, but we usually don’t give it much thought when promoting people. We usually see that someone has reached a ceiling in his salary and the only way to bump him up is by promoting him, regardless of his leadership abilities.
NUMBER 10: TAKING CREDIT, PASSING ALONG BLAME
This is tied very closely to number 8, and you may notice that this type of manager loves meetings and face time with upper management, because he usually engages in undermining his staff in order to make himself look good. He may not carry the traits of the manager described in number 8, but he can be deadly behind closed doors.
This type of manager can ruin your day by spreading false information about his staff when things don’t go right, and not giving enough credit to the staff when things go well. Sometimes a strong management team can root out this type of manager; if not, you may be spending more time trying the dispel rumors and defend your staff than you will performing productive work. The good news is that this type of manager is eventually discovered and is either appropriately dealt with or not taken very seriously. But if that doesn’t happen, watch out.
Well, there you have it. Ten ways that management can ruin your day. Some of these are more obvious and easy to handle than others, but they all can ruin your day. All managers, even the great ones, may display some of these traits, but not enough to warrant any concern. I didn’t talk about how to combat these issues, but I will do so in a future column. For now, if you find yourself in one of these situations, the best thing to do is understand the situation so you can then make an informed decision about what to do. Good luck.